Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first African American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department in Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman. Desperate to prove his worth, Ron sets out on a dangerous assignment to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. But wait, as a black man, Ron can only speak to the head of the Klan by phone.
It will take Ron’s new best ‘buddy,’ seasoned officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to do the actual undercover detective work posing as Ron (a right-wing racist). Meanwhile, Stallworth manages to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and gets to form a relationship with student activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) in the process from page to screen, but it is Zimmerman who must rescue them both during the film’s climactic scene.
Is Stallworth the hero?
The best thing about Spike Lee’s new film is that it provided a vehicle for John David Washington to give a likeable enough performance reminiscent of Richard Rowntree in ‘Shaft.’ The actor looks good on screen, and he also does a passable impersonation of Richard Pryor “imitating white folks” from the genius comedian’s classic stand-up routines. But that to me is about it!
Otherwise, BlacKkKlansman was just bland. Trying to be ‘Stir Crazy’ with good hair using an uninspired script to make light of attempts by the Ku Klux Klan to go mainstream in 1978. None of it was funny, except “Sheeeeiiit!” spoken by Isiah Whitlock Jr., who played corrupt Maryland State Senator Clay Davis in The Wire. It was a cheap laugh, milked, which about summed it up. Veteran actor and civil rights activist, Harry Belafonte, is left to remind us in a cameo of the atrocities inflicted on African Americans by the oldest extreme hate group in the United States.
Official BlackKklansman Trailer
I’m not sure if the Ku Klux Klan’s anti-black rhetoric is a fitting subject for comedy at this time, and if so, Spike Lee didn’t hit the note in this film. All a bit too blunt for my cinematic taste. Only people I heard laughing at The Ritzy in Brixton on opening night were white cinema-goers giggling at crass jokes that barely made anyone else chuckle. It is hard to recreate the comedic pairing of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, but Washington and Driver are not it.
Everything about this film is a mishmash of ideas from a bygone era or a bunch of predictable stereotypes, including the light-skinned love interest; the white guy who saves the day; the racist cop who gets his comeuppance; and the significant action event at the end. Lee’s heavy-handed addition of a few topical references sprinkled visually, or in the dialogue here and there, serves only to give the impression that BlacKkKlansman has something edgy or relevant to say about the world as it is today, when in fact, the movie comes across as lazy filmmaking with a few predictable digs at Trump.
In the Final Analysis…
Static and yawningly dull, the selection of cartoonish characters in BlacKkKlansman left me wishing the film was less confused about its audience, and hence, who the hero of this cinematic telling should be. It wasn’t what it said on the tin, for sure, nor as written in Ron Stallworth’s memoirs. It’s all about money and control at the end of the day. Where you get your financing will often dictate the story a filmmaker gets to tell, and the compromises he or she must make to have their story realised. Spike Lee has made his choices clear.